International Papers

Conan the Barbarian

A hand puppet yanks Quebecois’ chains.

NBC late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien took his show to Toronto last week, and Canada’s newspapers treated it as a huge media event. What began as national pride—exemplified by the Globe and Mail’s Jan. 21 announcement of the upcoming broadcasts—peaked with a weeklong love fest as the comic highlighted a wide range of north-of-the-border culture broadcast from Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.

Inspired by a desire to show the world that there’s more to Toronto—and Canada—than last year’s SARS epidemic, the effort to bring O’Brien to town was spearheaded by a Canadian businessman who hatched the plan while talking to two native sons who have made it big in Hollywood: Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels (who discovered O’Brien a decade ago) and Mike Myers of Austin Powers fame. “His show is seen around the world and it will just show people that in the middle of winter we can have a lot of fun in this country,” the businessman told the London Free Press a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately for the Canada-boosters, you can bring a comedian to Toronto for four nights, but you can’t predetermine the kind of publicity he’ll generate. By the time O’Brien returned to New York, the English-language Canadian press was embroiled in an uncharacteristically ugly spate of soul-searching, finger-pointing, and brow-beating, as they heaped scorn on those responsible for inflicting the “racist” comic on the country.

Everything would have been fine if it hadn’t been for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, one of O’Brien’s recurring gags. Triumph spreads bad cheer and ill-will wherever he goes, but when O’Brien let the hand puppet loose in Quebec City on Thursday night, his antics caused the normally serene Canadians to pop a few blood vessels.

“So you’re French and Canadian, yes?” the puppet said in one of the offending segments. “So you’re obnoxious and dull.” If anybody missed the subtle humor, it was followed with these gems: “You’re in North America. … Learn the language!” and “I can tell you’re French. … You have that proud expression, that superior look, and I can smell your crotch from here.”

The (English-speaking) audience in the Toronto theater loved the routines, but French Canadians were not the only ones who weren’t amused.

“That’s not something I would have laughed at,” the Toronto Sun quoted the premier of Ontario saying in reaction to the sketches. Federal lawmakers also decried the foray into the sensitive quicksand of French-English relations. The National Post reported a torrent of condemnations by MPs in Ottawa. “The whole point of trying to help deal with the devastation of the SARS crisis on the city of Toronto was to attract tourists,” one said. “How it got morphed into this kind of garbage I don’t know.”

O’Brien “threw oil and matches down our national fault line,” wrote a commentator in the Montreal Gazette. “I wonder how he’d feel if we let Canada’s Insulting Beaver Puppet loose on U.S. TV to yuk it up about Sept. 11.”

The outrage grew when media reports stressed that Canada had actually paid for the privilege of being insulted on U.S. television. “Your tax dollars at work,” was the headline on a Winnipeg Sun article revealing that the federal and provincial governments paid $1 million (Canadian) to underwrite the cost of bringing the show to Toronto.

Surely the government officials who cooked up the subsidy thought it was a good move at the time. The Toronto Star was typically over-the-top in its editorial that gently chided the city and its residents for being “more star-struck than SARS-struck”—but went on to conclude with its own softball sendoff: “Thanks, Conan. Come back soon.”

That was Friday’s editions. Saturday’s paper lamented that the previous day’s editorial went to press before the true nature of O’Brien’s Canadian dalliance had been revealed. ” [W]e spoke far too soon,” the editors said. “Had we known the mean-spirited content of … NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien, we never would have invited him to return anytime.” The editorial went on, “It wasn’t just poking fun, it wasn’t clever—it was hateful and, yes, racist,” and it concluded “Goodbye Conan. Don’t come back soon.”

Condemnation wasn’t the only reaction in the press. A columnist in the Toronto Star wrote “I can’t believe this country was successfully baited by a damn hand puppet. … [I]n the end, the reaction to Triumph says more about Canada than America.”

In the end, perhaps the Gazette columnist drew the most telling conclusion of the O’Brien follies: “Calling Dr. Freud. We’ve got a big city in our midst with an even bigger inferiority complex.”